5 Ways Emotional Pain Is Worse Than Physical Pain
Why emotional pain causes longer lasting damage to our lives
We tend to monitor our bodies and our physical health far more than we do our emotional health. For example, we get yearly physical check-ups but the idea of getting a ‘psychological check-up’ is completely foreign to us.
We know that if a small physical injury like a cut becomes more painful over time it is a sign of a more serious infection. But if failing to get a promotion at work is still emotionally painful after several weeks we are unaware that we might be getting depressed.
We tend to react to physical pain much more proactively than we do to emotional pain. Yet, short of catastrophic injuries or illnesses, emotional pain often impacts our lives far more than physical pain does. Here are five reasons emotional pain is worse than physical pain:
1. Memories Trigger Emotional Pain But Not Physical Pain: Recalling the time you broke your leg will not make your leg hurt but recalling the time you felt rejected by your high-school crush will cause you substantial emotional pain. Our ability to evoke emotional pain by merely remembering distressing events is profound and stands in stark contrast to our total inability (thankfully) to re-experience physical pain. This is one of the reasons:
2. We Use Physical Pain as Distraction from Emotional Pain Not Vice Versa: Some teens and adults practice ‘cutting’ (slicing their flesh superficially with a blade) because the physical pain it evokes distracts them from their emotional pain, thus offering them relief. But the same does not work in reverse, which is why we rarely see a woman choosing to manage the pain of natural childbirth by rereading the rejection letter from her college of choice. Unfortunately, although we might prefer physical to emotional pain, others see our pain differently, as evidenced by the fact that:
3. Physical Pain Garners Far More Empathy from Others Than Emotional Pain: When we see a stranger get hit by a car we wince, gasp, or even scream and run to see if they’re okay. But when we see a stranger get bullied or taunted we are unlikely to do any of those things. Studies found we consistently underestimate others’ emotional pain but not their physical pain. Further, these empathy gaps for emotional pain are reduced only if we’ve experienced a similar emotional pain very recently ourselves. Another aspect of emotional pain others often miss is:
4. Emotional Pain Echoes in Ways Physical Pain Does Not: If you got a call about your parent dying while you were having a romantic lobster meal with your partner on Valentine’s Day, it will probably be a few years before you can enjoy lobster or Valentine’s Day without becoming extremely sad. But if you broke your foot playing softball in an amateur league you will likely be back on the field as soon as you’re fully healed. Physical pain usually leaves few echoes (unless the circumstance of the injury was emotionally traumatic) while emotional pain leaves numerous reminders, associations and triggers that reactivate our pain when we encounter them. This is one of the reasons:
5. Emotional Pain but Not Physical Pain Can Damage Our Self-Esteem and Long-Term Mental Health: Physical pain has to be quite extreme to affect our personalities and damage our mental health (again, unless the circumstances are emotionally traumatic as well) but even single episodes of emotional pain can damage our emotional health. For example, failing an exam in college can create anxiety and a fear of failure, a single painful rejection can lead to years of avoidance and loneliness,bullying in middle school can make us shy and introverted as adults, and a critical boss can damage our self-esteem for years to come.
All these are reasons we should give our emotional health just as much (if not more) attention and care as we do our physical health. Alas, we rarely do. While we take action at the first sight of a sniffle or muscle sprain we do little to ‘treat’ common emotional injuries such as rejection, failure, guilt, brooding, or loneliness when we sustain them. While we apply antibacterial ointment to a cut or scrape right away we do little to boost or protect our self-esteem when it is low.
True, we might not know what actions we can take in such situations but the good news is, this kind of information is readily available. All we have to do is seek it out (for example, by using the search function on this website).
What’s your story?
What we can learn for how we recount episodes from our past
We used to do it round the campfire, then around the office watercooler, and now we have Twitter and Facebook. Telling stories about our lives is part of what makes us human, but recounting episodes from our lives also has the power to alter the way we view the past, not to mention the sense of optimism and direction with which we may approach.
Heroes and villains
Whether we’re conscious of it or not, most of us view our lives as stories. Looking back, it’s possible to discern a series of distinct chapters and a cast of characters that will inevitably include heroes – a favourite teacher, a first love – and villains – the treacherous ex, the toxic boss and so on. And, like the best novels, every life story has challenges and suspense, for no one knows for sure how things will turn out.
Much like our favourite movie, our personal life stories can be compelling and seductive, causing us to revisit them over and over again. And we often dwell on certain life events at the expense of others.
‘Starting late in adolescence, we manufacture our dramatic personal myths by selectively mining some experiences and neglecting or forgetting others,’ says Dan McAdams, a pioneer in the field of narrative psychology.
‘As humans, we have an innate need to feel that we had the power to do things differently,’ says psychotherapist Susan Cowan-Jenssen. ‘We assume responsibility for all manner of events. The alternative is to feel randomness of the universe, that we’re powerless to stop bad stuff happening, which is terrifying.’
When we get stuck on a negative episode of our life story from which we can’t bounce back, for example, that’s contaminative. The most common example is the end of a seemingly perfect romantic relationship, frequently but not always, at a young age.
People who are more disposed to sadness, neuroticism and depression are more likely to react in a way that contaminates everything that follows, as are people who describe bad events in a fatalistic way, as if they have no power over the outcome.
By contrast, the other response to negative life events is the redemptive story, where we try to put a positive spin on what’s happened, and believe something good has come from our suffering. There are different categories of ‘bouncing back’ stories, which include sacrifice, self-improvement, growth, learning and recovery.
Apparently, people who are most conscious of living life as a story, and use language such as ‘turning point’ and ‘footnote’ when writing about their lives, are the most successful at making positive life changes. ‘They are considering that life is a story whose direction can change as the result of one scene,’ says McAdams.
Your Inner Lie Discloser
Forensic linguists analyze your unconscious patterns of expression.
Michael Hunter, a student at the University of North Carolina, was found dead in his bed. His roommate, Joseph Mannino, called 911. An autopsy indicated that Hunter had died from a mixture of drugs, including an overdose of Lidocaine, an anesthetic. But when the pathologist found an injection mark on his arm, with no sign of a needle near him, the police opened an investigation.
Hunter had roomed with Mannino, a med student, and Garry Walston, a landscape architect. Mannino had access to Lidocaine. Manino admitted he’d given it to Hunter for migraine headaches. He added that Hunter had recently discovered he was HIV-positive, so perhaps he’d used the Lidocaine to end his life. Mannino even gave police a printout from a computer disc that contained apparent suicide notes to Hunter’s friends and relatives.
However, Walston told police that Mannino and Hunter had been angry at each other. Mannino had been in the process of moving out when Hunter was found dead.
The suicide notes were key. Had Hunter written these documents? Without actual handwriting to work with, who could make a determination from just content analysis?
A growing group of professionals, it turns out, can offer this service.
I recently attended a workshop on forensic linguistics, sponsored by TALE, The Association for Linguistic Evidence. The organizer was Dr. Carole Chaski, president of ALIAS Technology and founder of the Institute of Linguistic Evidence, Inc. (ILE), a nonprofit agency that supports research on the validity and reliability of language-based author identification.
Linguistic analysis involves making a detailed analysis of the content of a questioned document to compare it with what its potential author writes and/or reads. The basic premise is that no two people use language in exactly the same way. The pattern of unique differences in each person’s use of language and the repetition of those traits throughout his or her writing provide the internal evidence that links (or fails to link) a person to the questioned writing.
When analyzing a sample, such as a suicide note, forensic linguists examine the subject’s other writings or–with unknown subjects–search text databases that could contain similar language habits. The sample’s language can help establish the writer’s age, gender, ethnicity, level of education, professional training, and ideology.
Key items are vocabulary, spelling, grammar, syntax, and punctuation habits. Other kinds of textual evidence might include borrowed or influential source material, document formatting, and the physical document itself.
Chaski’s method is based on generative grammar, a touchstone in linguistics for the past five decades. Generative grammar originated in the work of Noam Chomsky, and this approach analyzes the rules of grammar in a particular language to form an algorithm with which to predict which combinations of words will form grammatical sentences.
Unlike some “stylistics” analysts who use subjective judgment, Chaski relies on standard statistical tests. She is known for her approach to what’s called “the keyboard dilemma,” i.e., the difficulty with identifying authorship of documents written with a keyboard to which multiple users have access. To address this issue, she applies cross-validated syntactic analysis.
That is, a questioned document will show distinct syntactic patterns–the unconscious way in which a person automatically combines nouns, verbs, adverbs and prepositions to create phrases–and each is counted statistically.
With a program of her design, Chaski has tested hundreds of linguistic variables with several statistical procedures, achieving up to 95 percent accuracy for author attribution from blind samples.
So, for the Hunter case, she agreed to analyze the supposed suicide notes.
She received numerous samples of both Hunter’s and Mannino’s writing. Then she applied her program.
None of Hunter’s known exemplars (written documents) exhibited certain key syntactical items that were evident in the suicide notes, so Chaski concluded with a high degree of probability that he had not written them. However, there was reason to believe that Manino might be the author. An HIV test also showed that Hunter was not HIV positive. This discovery increased suspicion against Mannino.
He was arrested. At his trial he admitted that he’d written the notes. He was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter.
As a forensic scientist, Chaski is working hard to reduce the errors of subjective analysis (junk science) and improve the reliability and validity of ILE’s approach. With the increased use of computers for creating documents of all types, this is a service that law enforcement cannot do without. The more it’s grounded in scientific standards, the better.
How to Spot and Stop Manipulators
8 tips for keeping them at a distance, or breaking free.
“There are those whose primary ability is to spin wheels of manipulation. It is their second skin and without these spinning wheels, they simply do not know how to function.”
― C. JoyBell C.
Psychological manipulation can be defined as the exercise of undue influence through mental distortion and emotional exploitation, with the intention to seize power, control, benefits, and privileges at the victim’s expense.
It is important to distinguish healthy social influence from psychological manipulation. Healthy social influence occurs between most people, and is part of the give and take of constructive relationships. In psychological manipulation, one person is used for the benefit of another. The manipulator deliberately creates an imbalance of power, and exploits the victim to serve his or her agenda.
Most manipulative individuals have four common characteristics:
- They know how to detect your weaknesses.
- Once found, they use your weaknesses against you.
- Through their shrewd machinations, they convince you to give up something of yourself in order to serve their self-centered interests.
- In work, social, and family situations, once a manipulator succeeds in taking advantage of you, he or she will likely repeat the violation until you put a stop to the exploitation.
Root causes for chronic manipulation are complex and deep-seated. But whatever drives an individual to be psychologically manipulative, it’s not easy when you’re on the receiving end of such aggression. How can one successfully manage these situations? Here are eight keys to handling manipulative people. Not all of the tips below may apply to your particular situation. Simply utilize what works and leave the rest.
1. Know Your Fundamental Human Rights
The single most important guideline when you’re dealing with a psychologically manipulative person is to know your rights, and recognize when they’re being violated. As long as you do not harm others, you have the right to stand up for yourself and defend your rights. On the other hand, if you bring harm to others, you may forfeit these rights. Following are some of our fundamental human rights:
- You have the right to be treated with respect.
- You have the right to express your feelings, opinions and wants.
- You have the right to set your own priorities.
- You have the right to say “no” without feeling guilty.
- You have the right to get what you pay for.
- You have the right to have opinions different than others.
- You have the right to take care of and protect yourself from being threatened physically, mentally or emotionally.
- You have the right to create your own happy and healthy life.
These fundamental human rights represent your boundaries.
Of course, our society is full of people who do not respect these rights. Psychological manipulators, in particular, want to deprive you of your rights so they can control and take advantage of you. But you have the power and moral authority to declare that it is you, not the manipulator, who’s in charge of your life.
2. Keep Your Distance
One way to detect a manipulator is to see if a person acts with different faces in front of different people and in different situations. While all of us have a degree of this type of social differentiation, some psychological manipulators tend to habitually dwell in extremes, being highly polite to one individual and completely rude to another—or totally helpless one moment and fiercely aggressive the next. When you observe this type of behavior from an individual on a regular basis, keep a healthy distance, and avoid engaging with the person unless you absolutely have to. As mentioned earlier, reasons for chronic psychological manipulation are complex and deep-seated. It is not your job to change or save them.
3. Avoid Personalization and Self-Blame
Since the manipulator’s agenda is to look for and exploit your weaknesses, it is understandable that you may feel inadequate, or even blame yourself for not satisfying the manipulator. In these situations, it’s important to remember that you are not the problem; you’re simply being manipulated to feel bad about yourself, so that you’re more likely to surrender your power and rights. Consider your relationship with the manipulator, and ask the following questions:
- Am I being treated with genuine respect?
- Are this person’s expectations and demands of me reasonable?
- Is the giving in this relationship primarily one way or two ways?
- Ultimately, do I feel good about myself in this relationship?
Your answers to these questions give you important clues about whether the “problem” in the relationship is with you or the other person.
4. Put the Focus on Them by Asking Probing Questions
Inevitably, psychological manipulators will make requests (or demands) of you. These “offers” often make you go out of your way to meet their needs. When you hear an unreasonable solicitation, it’s sometimes useful to put the focus back on the manipulator by asking a few probing questions, to see if she or he has enough self-awareness to recognize the inequity of their scheme. For example:
- “Does this seem reasonable to you?”
- “Does what you want from me sound fair?”
- “Do I have a say in this?”
- “Are you asking me or telling me?”
- “So, what do I get out of this?”
- “Are you really expecting me to [restate the inequitable request]?”
When you ask such questions, you’re putting up a mirror, so the manipulator can see the true nature of his or her ploy. If the manipulator has a degree of self-awareness, he or she will likely withdraw the demand and back down.
On the other hand, truly pathological manipulators will dismiss your questions and insist on getting their way. If this occurs, apply ideas from the following tips to keep your power, and halt the manipulation.
5. Use Time to Your Advantage
In addition to unreasonable requests, the manipulator will often also expect an answer from you right away, to maximize their pressure and control over you in the situation. (Sales people call this “closing the deal.”) During these moments, instead of responding to the manipulator’s request right away, consider leveraging time to your advantage, and distancing yourself from his or her immediate influence. You can exercise leadership over the situation simply by saying:
“I’ll think about it.”
Consider how powerful these few words are from a customer to a salesperson, or from a romantic prospect to an eager pursuer, or from you to a manipulator. Take the time you need to evaluate the pros and cons of a situation, and consider whether you want to negotiate a more equitable arrangement, or if you’re better off by saying “no,” which leads us to our next point:
6. Know How To Say “No”―Diplomatically But Firmly
To be able to say “no” diplomatically but firmly is to practice the art of communication. Effectively articulated, it allows you to stand your ground while maintaining a workable relationship. Remember that your fundamental human rights include the right to set your own priorities, the right to say “no” without feeling guilty, and the right to choose your own happy and healthy life.
7. Confront Bullies, Safely
A psychological manipulator also becomes a bully when he or she intimidates or harms another person.
The most important thing to keep in mind about bullies is that they pick on those whom they perceive as weaker, so as long as you remain passive and compliant, you make yourself a target. But many bullies are also cowards on the inside. When their targets begin to show backbone and stand up for their rights, the bully will often back down. This is true in schoolyards, as well as in domestic and office environments.
On an empathetic note, studies show that many bullies are victims of violence themselves. This in no way excuses bullying behavior, but may help you consider the bully in a more equanimous light:
- "When people don’t like themselves very much, they have to make up for it. The classic bully was actually a victim first.”—Tom Hiddleston
- “Some people try to be tall by cutting off the heads of others.”—Paramhansa Yogananda
- “I realized that bullying never has to do with you. It’s the bully who’s insecure.” —Shay Mitchell
When confronting bullies, be sure to place yourself in a position where you can safely protect yourself, whether it’s standing tall on your own, having other people present to witness and support, or keeping a paper trail of the bully’s inappropriate behavior. In cases of physical, verbal, or emotional abuse, consult with counseling, legal, law enforcement, or administrative professionals. It’s important to stand up to bullies, and you don’t have to do it alone.
8. Set Consequences
When a psychological manipulator insists on violating your boundaries, and won’t take “no” for an answer, deploy consequence.
The ability to identify and assert consequence(s) is one of the most important skills you can use to “stand down” a difficult person. Effectively articulated, consequences give pause to the manipulative individual, and compels her or him to shift from violation to respect.
Any friendship, at its core, is two people’s connection at any one moment - or string of moments - in time. It’s unrealistic to expect that the person you were closest to at one point in your life will also be the person you want by your side at every subsequent stage.
If you have a wonderful relationship that eventually becomes less wonderful, the ending of the friendship does not negate the positive experiences that came before it. Sometimes friendships simply wither or fade as two people grow and change, and it doesn’t have to be someone’s fault.
The Science of Heartache: 6 Things You Need to Know
Exploring the connection between physical and emotional pain
Just as the digital age has ushered in new ways of enhancing human connection, it’s also opened up the scope and range of social rejection. The verb “unfriend”—as in Facebook—was the word of the year in 2009, joining its older cohort “cyberbully,” not to mention the advent of the text breakup or the Facebook status change to tell him or her it’s over. With the yin and yang of digital life in mind, it seems relevant to explore what science knows about emotional pain and its connection to the physical kind.
Language has always mirrored the connection between these two kinds of pain; we suffer from broken hearts as well as bones, and speak of bruised feelings and toes. All of this seems intuitively right because we recognize the common basis of the pain we experience, whether it’s that of missing someone so much that you ache or a throbbing head. Is there anyone out there who actually believed that “sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never harm me?” I somehow doubt it but now science has a bead on the literal harm words inflict.
The links between these two kinds of pain goes beyond the metaphorical and what science reveals about emotional pain, and why we feel it is nothing short of fascinating.
1. We’re hardwired to feel emotional pain as well as physical pain.
It’s been hypothesized that it’s not just the human infant’s many years of dependence on i caretakers until he or she finally reaches maturity but also the continued reliance of individuals on others for basic sustenance and protection—from the earliest hunter-gather cultures and forward—that makes feeling the loss of social connections an evolutionary advantage. Human beings don’t thrive going it alone the way snakes do. Just as physical pain signals us that we must withdraw from or flee from something that is hurting us in order to survive, so too the loneliness we feel in isolation or the anxiety induced by abandonment reinforces us to seek out and maintain social connections.
Of course, it certainly doesn’t feel like an advantage, evolutionary or otherwise, when you’re in the throes of emotional devastation—the moment you hear that your ex is madly in love, blissed to the max, and about to get married; when your close friend cuts you off with nary a word of explanation; or at the moment your mother, who never has anything nice to say about you, tells you once again that you’re a horrible disappointment.
2. Social pain may be more like physical pain than not.
While both physical and emotional pain both “hurt,” they seem, on the surface at least, to do so in different ways, right? Well, maybe not as much as we might think. While it’s true that slicing your finger instead of the onion on the cutting board is one kind of experience and being dumped by someone you love is another, there’s evidence that they have more in common than not.
For example, Naomi L. Eisenberger and others used neuroimaging to see what happened in the brain when someone was socially excluded. Participants in the experiment were told they’d be playing an online ball-tossing game with other players; unbeknownst to them, the other “players” weren’t people but computers. In the first round, the subjects were “included” by the other players who tossed the ball to them; in the second round, they were deliberately excluded. The neuroimaging showed greater activity after the exclusion in the regions of the brain associated with the affective component of physical pain, suggesting a shared circuitry.
But another experiment by Ethan Kross and others went even further, positing that there might be more of an overlap if the stimulus were strong enough. Perhaps being “excluded” from an online game just didn’t pack enough of a social wallop. So they conducted an experiment to see whether they could involve the regions of the brain that are involved in both the affective and sensory components of physical pain. The researchers recruited forty participants who’d experienced “an unwanted romantic break-up.” (In other words, they’d been dumped by someone they loved.) During MRI scanning, the participants were put through a number of tasks. They were asked to look at a headshot of their ex and specifically think about their feelings of rejection (OUCH!!) and then at a photo of a friend, someone of the same gender as their ex-partner, and think about the positive experiences they’d shared with that person. The same participants were also given two types of physical pain tests: one a “hot trial” where enough heat to cause discomfort was applied to the left forearm and a “warm” trial applied to the same location which was hot enough to produce sensation but no discomfort.
What the researchers found was that the same parts of the brain were activated by the pain of recalling rejection and the physical pain of heat. Future research will reveal more but it would appear that the connection between emotional and physical pain is much, much more than a metaphor.
3. Words hurt just like sticks and stones
We all know this, despite the adage. When I was writing Mean Mothers, women who were victims of “just” verbal abuse often commented that they wished they’d been hit so that “their wounds and scars would show.” In a series of studies, Martin Teicher M.D., Ph.D. and others have shown that there are physical and emotional consequences of “just” verbal abuse. In one study, the researchers found that the effects of parental verbal aggression were comparable to “those associated witnessing domestic violence or nonfamilial sexual abuse.” In fact, verbal aggression produced larger effects than familial physical abuse. There’s evidence too that exposure to verbal abuse in childhood actually alters the structure of the brain. That was also borne out in another study by Dr. Teicher and his colleagues called “Hurtful Words.” What the researchers found was that especially during the middle school years, when the brain is actively developing, exposure to peer bullying and verbal abuse caused changes to the white matter in the brain.
Just because we can’t see the wounds doesn’t mean they aren’t literally and physically there.
4. Some of us are more sensitive to pain—social and physical—than others.
It’s called “rejection sensitivity,” and what it means is that some of us expect and anxiously anticipate social exclusion or rejection, are quick to perceive it, and react to it really strongly. You probably know who you are —the person who is anxious about going to a party, who’s prone to read into the text you just got. Rejection sensitivity is connected to attachment in childhood; insecurely attached people are more likely to be rejection sensitive than those who had loving, attuned, and accepting relationships in their families of origin. Alas, rejection sensitivity tends to be a self-fulfilling prophecy because the person over-reacts and misreads social cues.
Mind you, we are all sensitive to social exclusion, but to different degrees. Studies have shown that people who suffer from high levels of daily pain also experience greater fears of social rejection; similarly, those who have a heightened sensitivity to social pain also report having more physical symptoms, including pain, those whose who are securely attached.
5. Pain, whether it’s emotional or physical, hurts more when it’s deliberately inflicted.
At first glance, this statement seems just like a validation of something everyone knows already but it’s an important thing to remember in the digital age when it’s often not clear whether the person is deliberately rejecting you (“Did he/she really not see the text I sent three hours ago?”) or when a “conversation” that is conducted without the benefit of tone, nuance, or facial expressions goes badly.
While determining whether a slight or a wound in the real world is deliberate is relatively straightforward, it’s not in cyberspace. And it matters as one study conduced by Kurt Gray and Daniel M. Wegner demonstrated. Participants were grouped into pairs, one of whom would be administered tasks by the other called the “confederate.” There were four tasks, three of which were benign (color matching, number estimation, and pitch judgment) but the fourth was the delivery of an electric shock which the participant would have to rank on a scale from “not uncomfortable” to “extremely uncomfortable.” In each trial, a computer showed two possible tests and the participant was told that the confederate would determine which test was administered. In one group—the intentional condition—the confederate was told to choose the shock when it was a possible choice; in the other condition the confederate was told to chose the pitch judgment, not the shock, when it appeared on the screen. But the participant was told that, unbeknownst to the confederate, the tasks had been switched so that the pitch judgment would yield to the shock being administered, albeit unintentionally.
The experiment showed that intended pain was perceived as more painful, even though the literal amount of pain administered was the same. Attributing malice to something painful not only makes it hurt more but makes it harder to recover from.
Many of us, alas, know this from experience but it’s good to know that it’s a universal reaction. It’s why the emotional pain inflicted on us deliberately by people who are supposed to love us (parents, siblings, spouses, friends) is so hard to get over.
6. Why “getting over it” is so hard and why you may need help
For all that emotional pain and physical pain have much in common, our attitudes toward them are very different. You wouldn’t find yourself telling someone to “get over” the pain of a broken hip or leg, but you might very well when it comes to a difficult childhood or the painful breakup of a relationship. Understanding the science of pain can perhaps change our cultural attitudes toward social pain and our treatment of it. Consider, for example, a study by C. Nathan De Wall and others that looked at whether acetaminophen (yup, the stuff you buy over-the-counter for fever and pain) could reduce social pain. Can you take two pills to cure the pain of social exclusion the way you might for a headache? In their first experiment, the researchers had participants take either acetaminophen or a placebo every day for three weeks, and report on their hurt feelings daily, as well as positive emotional experiences. Amazingly, those taking acetaminophen reported significantly lower daily hurt feelings of rejection or exclusion.
The results of a second experiment were less clear. The same conditions as the first were applied and then the participants played the cyberball game—the one where the player is first included and then “excluded” by the other players—and then reported on their feelings. MRI scans were then taken. Interestingly, although the pill did reduce activation in the brain regions associated with social pain, all the participants—whether they took the pill or the placebo—reported equal levels of social distress to the exclusion episode. This wasn’t what the researchers predicted.
So, while confirming the close connection between physical and emotional pain, this study shows there might not be an over-the-counter remedy for the experience of hurt. Further research will tell us more but, in the meantime, we’ll just have to focus on causing less emotional pain and helping more when people suffer from it.
➜ Four Unexpected Benefits of Therapy
by Ryan Howes
Most people enter therapy wanting something. They seek relief from debilitating symptoms. They want help making a life-changing decision. They long to heal past hurts. Couples need tools for communication. Some want better self-control. Others search for the ability to reach their potential. The list goes on.
If their therapy has the right formula of therapeutic competence, perseverance, compatibility, and good fortune, those individuals will likely reach those goals. They’ll learn what they need to learn, internalize the therapist’s message or voice, and charge into the next challenges of their life.
But many people find that therapy also provides some unexpected benefits. When they leave, they realize they’ve gotten more than they bargained for—sort of a bonus for engaging in the experience. Here are four unexpected benefits of therapy I’ve seen in my own practice:
Depth: In polite society, we’re accustomed to having mundane conversations revolving around the weather, bullet points from work, some celebrity/sports highlights, and the story we just heard on NPR or Fox News. We skip along the surface because doing so is safe and universally accepted. Therapy pushes beyond the superficial to deeper introspective questions of personal experience, historical precedents, deep feelings, and drives—a variety of topics that would never end up on a Facebook status update. When people realize talking on this level is not just interesting, but also productive and healing, they want to recreate this depth in other relationships.
Empathy: It’s kind of ironic: The majority of people come to therapy wanting to understand their own problems and why other people impact them the way they do. But once they delve into their own issues, they discover insights that help them understand their lovers, their friends, their co-workers, and their bosses on a whole new level. A light bulb goes off and they may think, “Oh, that person’s worst experience was when he was abandoned by his dad. I understand why he reacted so strongly when I bailed on our plans.” People often learn to understand the people who inhabit their lives nearly as much as they understand themselves. Or maybe they become curious and ask a few more questions, which leads to this deeper understanding.
Contagion: I can’t count the number of individuals who came to therapy to learn more about themselves and before long, their friends were interested in finding their own therapist. It happens all the time. People feel empowered and excited about growing. Their mood, attitude, and/or behavior changes, and their friends are intrigued. Occasionally, individuals in an entire friend circle will seek their own help and everyone relates on a deeper, more functional level. Fixing your friends is not a reason to seek therapy, but it sure can be rewarding when this is the outcome.
Listening: When a person spends significant time with a professional listener, that person often develops the ability to listen. They sit for many hours with someone who keeps eye contact, pays attention, and indicates reflecting or recalling past information. People in therapy know how good it feels to be on the receiving end of that kind of attention and are more likely to replicate that for their loved ones. They’ve reaped the benefits of close focused attention, had it modeled for them, and can now show it to others.
At the risk of sounding too pro-therapist, the common thread here is that therapy helps people learn to adopt some basic therapeutic characteristics. They learn to talk on a deep level, to empathize with others, to discover the thrill of self-knowledge, and to listen well. This is to be expected, as we humans often take on the characteristics of the people we spend time with, from attitudes to behaviors to communication styles.
Like I said, these are the bonuses of therapy. The main objective is helping people relieve their symptoms and underlying issues. But if they can resolve their problem while becoming better listeners and empathizers with an ability to discuss deep issues in a way that positively impacts their inner circle, what’s the problem?
Sounds like a bonus to me.
Ryan Howes, PhD, ABPP, is a clinical psychologist in Pasadena, California, the founder of National Psychotherapy Day sponsored by GoodTherapy.org, and a writer for the Psychotherapy Networker Magazine.
The 5 Psychological Challenges of Loss and Grief
How loss disrupts our lives and how to heal
Loss can take many forms, some of which are more devastating than others. When our spouse blindsides us by asking for a divorce, when an immediate family member dies, when we get let go from our long-term place of employment or when we become disabled by chronic illness or injury—our lives can feel as if they have been upended. Indeed, loss forces us to confront five specific psychological challenges.
1. Overcoming Paralyzing Emotional Pain: The first and most immediate challenge we face is that of excruciating and paralyzing emotional pain. At first, the pain is so severe we might be in shock and feel as though in a haze, trapped in a terrible alternate reality from which we cannot escape. We might lose the ability to think straight or even to function in the most basic ways. The one thing that helps diminish the pain is time. Therefore, our challenge is to find ways to simply get through those first terrible hours, days, and weeks. Once the initial shock begins to fade and the new realities set in, we face our second challenge:
2. Adjusting to Changes in Our Daily Lives: Grief and loss can change almost every aspect of our daily routines. We might no longer have a spouse with whom to socialize, losing our jobs means we have nowhere to go each morning, becoming disabled can mean having to retrain ourselves to do the most basic tasks. To recover we face the challenge of coming to terms with the changes that were forced upon us. Only then can we begin the process of finding new ways of living and being that can substitute for those we’ve lost.
3. Reformulating Our Identities: Significant grief and loss can impact our very sense of identity—how we define who we are. We feel as if the person we once were is lost and that the person facing us in the mirror is a stranger. We might have defined ourselves by our career but lost our job (or retired), we might have defined ourselves by our couplehood but lost our spouse, or we might have defined ourselves by our physicality but become crippled by Multiple Sclerosis. To recover we face the challenge of reexamining and redefining who we are, how we see ourselves, and how we want others to view us. We have to reconstruct our identities and come to peace with our new selves and our new lives.
4. Reconstructing Our Relationships: It is common for people to respond to profound loss by withdrawing into themselves. We might try to hold on to a deceased loved one by talking to them in our heads throughout the day, trying to keep them alive and present in our minds. At times, we might avoid other people, as they provide stark reminders of our loss. After failing out of college or losing our jobs we might lose touch with classmates and colleagues. Unfortunately, sickness and disability often make others uncomfortable and make them withdraw from us. To recover we face the challenge of reconnecting to those who remain and forming new connections that reflect the new realities of our situation.
5. Adjusting Our Belief Systems: Trying to make sense of our experiences in life is a compelling human drive. Although some of us articulate it more clearly than others do, we each have our way of understanding how the world works; a unique set of beliefs and assumptions that form the lens through which we view the world and our place in it. Loss and grief can challenge these basic assumptions and make us question everything we thought we knew. We’re flooded with doubts and questions, the simplest and most compelling of which is often simply—why? Our challenge is to find ways of making sense of what happened and adjusting our belief systems accordingly. And to thrive, we must find within ourselves a way to ascribe meaning to the events and discover a new purpose to drive our existence.
Recovering from grief and loss takes time but the best way to treat our psychological injuries is to consider the five challenges we face and at our own pace, within our own time frames, confront and overcome them one by one.
20 Questions That Will Tell You If It’s Love
A research-driven questionnaire that measures your feelings.
If psychologists could define love, they’d be far ahead of every poet, playwright, and songwriter who’s ever tried to put this elusive feeling into words. Love mostly provides pleasure, but as many of us know, that pleasure can come with a heavy price.
It may be more correct to view love not as an emotion, but a state or situation that can produce emotions both positive and negative. Still, that begs the question—what is the nature of this state, and why is it so important to our sense of well-being to have those pleasurable feelings?
Unlike the great writers and artists who’ve grappled with the question of love, psychologists take a more pragmatic approach as they try to break it down clinically into its component parts. According to University of Maryland psychologist Sandra Langeslag, working with her Dutch associates Peter Muris and Ingmar Franken, it’s not so important to define love per se, but to define the “symptoms” that go along with it. These symptoms fall into the categories of behavioral, affective (emotional), cognitive, and physical. Notice that they’re talking about “romantic” love, not the kind of love that’s simmered down from blazing hot to comfortably simmering, also called companionate love. In romantic love, your passion is still high as well as your intimacy.
According to Langeslag and her team, romantic love equals a mixture of infatuation and attachment. Infatuation is that heady feeling you experience when you’re in the throes of a crush. The attachment piece refers to the desire to bond with another creature, whether it’s a romantic partner, a favorite pet, or your favorite relative. Thus, Langeslag and her colleagues believe that you can be high on infatuation and low on attachment with regard to another person, because the two qualities are independent of one another.
Infatuation may bring with it those strong pleasurable feelings, as I noted earlier, or it can be associated with anguish, anxiety, distress, and misery. Because of this, Langeslag and her team believe that infatuation provides higher arousal levels than does attachment. It’s infatuation that will put you through the highs and lows as you pick the petals off the daisy wondering if he/she loves you or loves you not.
When your attachment to your partner is strong, solid and, as psychologists call it, secure, your emotions will remain on a more or less even keel. If you’re insecurely attached, in contrast, you may either fret constantly about whether or not your loved one will be there for you (“anxious attachment”) or dismissively push those you care about away (“avoidant attachment”).
The perfect combination, Langeslag and team propose, is to be high on both infatuation and attachment. This is perhaps why, in looking at the 12 ties that bind, the research I reviewed on successful long-term marriages shows that partners who stay together still care about what their partners are doing and want to be with them. However, because the highs and lows of infatuation do tend to smooth out over time, it’s more likely that people in it for the long haul are companionate- highly attached but only moderately (if at all) infatuated.
With this as a background, it’s time for you to see how your feelings measure up on the two dimensions of infatuation and attachment. You’ll know, after completing this 20-item test, whether you’re high on one, both, or neither based on comparisons with the numbers from Langeslag et al.’s study
Rate yourself from 1= strongly disagree to 7= strongly agree and respond according to your current love interest or romantic partner
- I stare into the distance when I think of ________.
- I feel that I can count on __________.
- I get shaky knees when I am near ____________.
- I am prepared to share my possessions with ____________.
- I would feel lonely without ______________.
- My feelings for ____________ reduce my appetite.
- My thoughts about ____________ make it difficult for me to concentrate on something else.
- ____________ is the one for me.
- I am afraid that I will say something wrong when I talk to ___________.
- ____________ knows everything about me.
- I hope my feelings for __________ will never end.
- I get clammy hands when I am near __________.
- I feel emotionally connected to ____________.
- I become tense when I am close to ____________.
- ___________ can reassure me when I am upset.
- I have a hard time sleeping because I am thinking of ___________.
- I search for alternate meanings of ____________’s words.
- ____________ is the person who can make me happiest.
- ____________ is a part of my plans for the future.
- I am shy in the presence of _____________.
Now add up your scores on each set of items:
Set 1: Items 1, 3, 6, 7, 9, 12, 14, 16, 17, 20
Set 2: Items 2, 4, 5, 8, 10, 11, 13, 15, 18, 19
Have you figured out which set reflects which component of romantic love? If your psych radar is turned on, you’ve concluded that Set 1 measures infatuation and Set 2 measures attachment. Now that you’ve totaled your scores, see how you compare with the study’s samples, which consisted of nearly 560 adults ranging from the late teens through the mid-50s, and about 2/3 female.
If your infatuation score was between about 40 and 45, and was approximately equal to your attachment score, then you’re most like people who were not yet in a romantic relationship with the object of their desire. The highest infatuation scores were, in fact, highest among the U.S. sample (45 on average). Partners who had either gotten married, were living together, or who were dating had infatuation scores between 20 and 30 among the Dutch and slightly higher among the Americans. People either cohabiting or married had the highest attachment scores, in the 60s and above.
So now, looking back at your scores, it’s likely the longer you’ve been involved with your partner, the more likely your infatuation score would dip beyond the midpoint of the 1-7 scale, but your attachment score would be at or near 7. We might conclude that the lower your infatuation score and the higher your attachment, the more likely it is that yours is a love that will endure, a finding that fleshes out the results of other studies showing how stress, dissatisfaction, and even educational level can contribute to marital unhappiness.
Other results from the study support the idea that it’s important to distinguish between attachment and infatuation. People in relationships for longer periods of time were lower on infatuation and higher on attachment. Part of the reason for this might have to do with another fascinating result: In both U.S. and Dutch samples, high scores on infatuation were positively related to unhappy feelings. Conversely, people with high attachment scores reported lower levels of unhappy feelings.
If you want your relationship to be a happy and enduring one, it’s the attachment component of love that will make this happen. By knowing how the numbers add up, you can see how both you, and your loved one, can enrich and enhance yours.